Who is allowed to consent?

Consent is a heavily discussed topic in today’s society. There are stories almost everyday in the news concerning topics involved with consent from medical surgery mishaps, to rape. The definition of consent, to put it briefly, is the agreement or confirmation to do or have something done. It can be withdrawn at anytime and is a requirement not only for legal purposes, but also to accomplish day to day life activities. Consent is not always verbal, as most people probably picture it to be, but can come from friends and family closest to the person if they are not able to provide it themselves. Who decides who is capable of providing such permission? 

In Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, she discusses what she titled chapter four, “The Surgical Theater.” Washington discusses the life of Sam and how he was a slave that suffered from severe jaw pain that was beginning to affect his ability to work. Many slaves during this time were immediately struck with fear when experiencing health related issues and for good reason! Sterile technique during this time was minuscule and surgery predated modern anesthesia. In Medical Apartheid, Sam refused surgical treatment for what was determined as cancer in his jaw because he was afraid of the pain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to Sam to make these kinds of decisions, and his owner decided to go through with the surgery so that he would be able to work as well as he used to in his prime. Sam should have been able to refuse the surgery without question since he didn’t give his permission to do so. Yet technically, one could say that this was acceptable consent at the time because Sam wasn’t considered “a person” and his owner gave the doctor permission to do so.

This is where the line between the definition that the United States has created for consent and what we individually feel is morally correct begins to blur. Sam by today’s standard, as long as he was over the age of 18, could make his own decisions about medical procedures without the input of anyone else. Where did this standardized age come from if these standards are constantly changing throughout the years? How do we know that 18 is the “golden age” where someone can make their own educated decisions when scientifically speaking, the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid twenties? These standards that are set for giving consent in the United States today are no longer based on freedom but on age. If our government couldn’t label black and white people as equals, as in the previous situation with Sam in Washington’s Medical Apartheid, than how can we put trust in their “opinion” that consent can be made at the age of 18 without any parental input? If a child under 18 years of age wants to refuse cancer radiation treatment but their parents disagree, how do we distinguish who’s right? Consent is also prevalent throughout Fortune’s Bones by Merilyn Nelson.

Nelson’s book delves into the life, more so after life, of a slave named Fortune. Fortune’s body was used for various purposes and started out as an avenue for “advancing” medicine. Nelson states, “The striated and smooth muscles, the beautiful integuments, the genius strokes of thumb and knee. In profound and awful intimacy, I enter Fortune and he enters me.” The skeleton of Fortune was manipulated by his owners when he was alive and continues to be manipulated after his death. Fortune’s consent to this simply doesn’t exist. No one thought to ask and certainly not to contact any of his family for permission. Nelson goes on to describe how Fortune’s narrative was lost and regained throughout the exchange of his bones, much like the policy and definition of consent throughout history. 

In a way Sam from Medical Apartheid, today’s not legally consenting under 18 year olds, and Fortune are being dehumanized. Sam was seen as less than human because he was a slave and was needed to work, today’s minors are seen as an age and not a competent being, and Fortune was seen as bones without thought or feeling.  So who calls the shots on consent?

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